Robert Fisk: The premier who thought Hitler was a 'Joan of Arc'

Wartime diaries

The date: 10 February 1937. The city: Ottawa. The man: William Lyon Mackenzie King, prime minister of Canada, soon to be the trusted wartime friend and confidant of Winston Churchill.

That frozen day in the Canadian capital, King recorded in his diary a friendly encounter with an old man on Wilbrod Street, a Jewish Russian immigrant called Cohen who had divided his possessions – a furniture and clothing business on Rideau and Banks Streets – among his three sons and daughter. He was now in retirement. As another former Canadian prime minister, Brian Mulroney, said of the Cohens, "a true Canadian success story".

Mulroney described to a Jewish meeting in Toronto last month how his illustrious predecessor "listened to Mr Cohen thoughtfully, treated him kindly" and then recorded the encounter in his diary. And this, dear reader, is what the odious King wrote: "The only unfortunate part of the whole story is that the Jews having acquired foothold of (sic) Sandy Hill, it will not be long before this part of Ottawa will become more or less possessed by them. I should not be surprised if, some time later, Laurier House (the prime minister's residence) was left as about the only residence not occupied by Jews in this part of the city."

Mulroney's devastating critique – it gets much worse – was published in last Monday's edition of Canada's ever more lunatic National Post, a paper which reads more and more like a right-wing Israeli settlers' house magazine in its defamatory attacks on the dead Turks of last week's aid convoy to Gaza and in its grovelling support for Israel's indisciplined army. Many Jews in the 1930s – even those who survived the Holocaust while still living in Nazi Germany – opposed the Zionist project for Palestine on the grounds that this would deprive the Arabs of their land, the one and a half million Palestinians now living in the prison of Gaza are part of the tragedy they foresaw. I do not know if Mr Cohen shared their views. It doesn't matter.

What is important is that Mackenzie King – "one of the most delightful men I have ever met" in the words of Churchill's rash son Randolph – set off, a few months after his encounter with Mr Cohen, to meet Chancellor Adolf Hitler of Germany. And here are the reflections of Canada's prime minister on the Führer who will launch the Second World War scarcely two years later.

"He (Hitler) smiled very pleasantly and indeed had a sort of appealing and affectionate look in his eyes. My sizing up of the man as I sat and talked with him was that he is really one who truly loves his fellow man. His face is much more prepossessing than his pictures would give the impression of. It is not that of a fiery overstrained nature but of a calm, passive man deeply and thoughtfully in earnest ... His eyes impressed me most of all. There was a liquid quality about them which indicates keen perception and profound sympathy. Calm, composed and one could see how particularly humble folk would have come to have profound love for the man. As I talked with him I could not but think of Joan of Arc..."

This is not just OUCH! This is "Jesus, Joseph and Mary!" Several times over. Next day, our Canadian hero was off to see Nazi foreign minister Konstantin von Neurath. "He admitted that they (the Nazis) had taken some pretty rough steps in cleaning up the situation ... He said to me that I would have loathed living in Berlin with the Jews, and the way in which they had increased their numbers in the city, and were taking possession of its more important part ... Many of them were very coarse and vulgar and assertive ... I left him (von Neurath) feeling that I had met a man whose confidence I would continue to enjoy through the rest of my days ... He is, if there ever was one, a genuinely kind, good man."

Little surprise, then, that when a passenger ship called St Louis – packed with 700 Jews fleeing Europe, their faces alight with hope before the cameras as it approached Canada on 17 June 1939 – Mackenzie King's government refused it entry. Canadians protested. So did journalists. And if you look today at photographs of the ship, you'll see children, husbands and wives with faces of smiling relief. They were safe. But they were not. They were sent back to the gas chambers.

There's no doubt why the National Post carried Mulroney's terrible story last week: to smother our condemnation of Israel's latest brutality. As usual, we who speak out against the ruthlessness of Israel's army – as, of course, we do against the Arabs – are anti-Semites. Remember the Holocaust. Remember Our Guilt. But it was Rick Salutin of the Toronto Globe and Mail who got it right this week. "It seems to me," he wrote, "that Israel's leaders have grown mindlessly, habitually dependent on asserting their own victimisation. This was often effective, based largely on sympathies rooted in revulsion of the Holocaust and the story of Western anti-Semitism. But this has gradually changed, due partly to the arrival of generations who, as it were, knew not Hitler, and aren't inclined to feel even indirectly guilty for him. The shift became evident during the 2008 Gaza invasion ... Yet Israel's leaders still automatically assume the victim position ... Societies that lose their internal dissent and self-criticism have a sad and scary record, especially when combined with a sense of victimisation."

I was on a Turkish television show this week and two of the other speakers were Jews from Israel. But both were outraged at the actions of their own government. And I wonder, as I write this, whether the doomed Jews on the St Louis might not agree with us, rather than the cruel regime that has laid claim to their souls. As for Mackenzie King... Well, he knew how to turn a boat away.